Ingmar Bergman is too exacting an artist to make a dull film, and The Serpent's Egg is different enough for viewers curious to see what the Swedish master of gloom and angst would do with millions to spend on sets and production.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis wooed him to Germany for this show. Bergman seems to have taken the job as much to snub Swedish officials harassing him over taxes, as a creative challenge. Technically and thematically the film is complete departure, as Bergman is set loose to create a Hell on Earth in giant studio sets as well as through intimately directed actors. As a movie ... well, it's a nice collection of coherent themes that will leave most viewers cold.
In The Serpent's Egg Ingmar Bergman is given what producers think every director wants, a giant budget and total freedom. Bergman's choice of subjects turns out to be a grab-bag of concepts borrowed from German Expressionism ... not your garden variety, but the hardcore film Expressionism of the middle 1920s with titles like The Joyless Street. Instead psychological evil, heroes with deteriorating minds and scenery limited to staring faces and tortured eyes, Bergman externalizes the threat and comes up with a blanket evil in the not-too-original form of proto-Nazi medical madness. What begins as a story of the gutters rather nicely morphs into a science fiction prediction of the frontiers of inhumanity. Instead of broadening his canvas, Bergman's personal themes are diluted. It's pictorially impressive but emotionally inert.
David Carradine might as well be Max Von Sydow, as Bergman uses the actor almost identically. It's not very flattering to think that Carradine's casting was possibly prompted by his soulful Zen routines in television's Kung Fu show. Carradine is actually rather good, giving the impression that he was flattered by the invite and strived to give Bergman everything he had. He vaults over railings in stunts guaranteed to shatter his ankles and tries his best to do things he's not noted for, like simple sincere smiles. Smiling is so atypical of the grim actor, it looks like he's wearing false teeth. Bergman's script insists that the Abel Rosenberg character be a piece of spineless flotsam in the film's many moral confrontations, so it's impossible to identify with him.
Liv Ullmann also stretches her screen persona as the Manuela, breaking the sameness of the sensitive-neurotic characters she always played for Bergman before. Seeing her as a floozie on a cabaret stage is certainly impressive and reminds us that when Bergman got into his intense personal line of psychodramas, his core actors (the quartet in The Passion of Anna) were really playing parts of his own personality. Ullmann was surely humiliated by the disastrous Lost Horizon, but Manuela shows a range Bergman usually didn't allow. She's a survivor with problems, but also a sensitive and caring individual. When she flips out toward the end, we eventually find out that the cause may be some weird experiments and not any personality disorder of her own.
Bergman opens up his world for The Serpent's Egg, pulling in a much larger scope of references. He plays games with names, using the surname Vergerus from The Passion of Anna and playfully referencing an Inspector Lohmann in one scene. 1 The ending combines themes from Dr. Mabuse (spying, the remote control of humans) but it also makes concrete what film critics have been wailing about for decades - that the hints of social disaster foretold in 20s German Expressionistic films bore direct fruit in the form of the Nazi Reich.(spoilers)
In a plot that might be called Barfly meets Dr. No, Abel and Manuela stumble into sinister scientist Heinz Bennent's precociously inhuman experiments, outgrowths of those bizarre Pavlovian studies we've seen in documentaries. Bennent's Dr. Vergerus is using poison gases, sense deprivation and cruel psychological tricks to study extreme human behavior for spurious purposes. Perhaps the morbid desire to experiment this way, is itself part of the experimental process. No matter, Vergerus's influence and Mabuse-like methods of control and observation have already wiped out a number of people. Abel and Manuela are 'benign' candidates for the same treatment, but Vergerus lets his personal relationship with them get in the way. Bergman's presentation of Vergerus's experiments is chilling - motion pictures are implicated in the horror through the doctor's use of hidden film cameras. 2 4
The big message comes when Vergerus predicts the rise of a techno-totalitarian regime that will make individual humans into a meaningless raw resource. Now (1923) is too soon, but in ten years Vergerus says it will all come to pass, meaning, referring of course to the rise of Nazidom. It's a pulpish way of delivering bad news, as if Ernst Blofeld paused to tell James Bond that Human Resource departments will soon make both spies and villains redundant. The device of saving a devastating revelation like this for a conclusion is usually not received very well by audiences. A theater I was in let out a giant groan when the 1980 thriller The Formula ended with Marlon Brando standing on an L.A. freeway overpass, boasting to George C. Scott that evil oil companies could do whatever they wanted, so long as there was gas to make the cars go. That wasn't news, and the revelations of Dr. Vergerus at the end of The Serpent's Egg are ultimately just as unaffecting. 3
Pulp fantasy doesn't seem to be Bergman's natural material. He presents two very warm characters we care about and then abandons them to a variant doom from his seemingly bottomless closet of despair. Poor Carradine just stands there and soaks up all of Vergerus' filmed horrors without a defined reaction. It's a thriller situation but Bergman refuses to follow through, as this is a job for Lemmy Caution, not Abel Rosenberg. We can't help think that the director evoked the same helplessness and anguish over human misery and Nazi politics in Persona by simply having Ullman stare at one evocative photo of a traumatized ghetto child.
According to Ullmann, Bergman thought himself out of his depth on a large-scale picture but he stages action well and places his camera with consistent precision. The expertly-shot and directed picture provides only one good supporting role. Gert Fröbe is wonderful as the gruff yet compassionate detective, but James Whitmore isn't particularly compelling as a priest who counsels Manuela. Brothel bum Glynn Turman bets that he can fornicate with a prostitute and then can't deliver in an okay scene meant to conjure the depraved atmosphere in Berlin. If the idea of having Carradine, Ullmann, Fröbe, Turman and Whitmore in a quasi-fantasy about an abstract reading of German Expressionist movies of the 20s seems a little indigestible .... it is.
Yet the picture is a beauty to watch and yet another unique curiosity. The best praise for The Serpent's Egg is that it creates a grim little genre all its own, Politico-Film History-Paranoia.
MGM's DVD of The Serpent's Egg looks terrific, and would only have been improved if the studio embraced the policy of doing 1:66 transfers with 16:9 enhancement. The original audio is in English.
The documentary this time has a lot of interesting back-story to tell. David Carradine joins Ullmann and critic Marc Gervais, giving us an extra point of view on Bergman's wild big-budget German escapade. Ullmann reports that the director saw Egg recently and thought it turned out pretty good after all. Carradine gives a sincere and thoughtful account of being yanked from his American TV and action career into this bizarre auteur effort in a foreign country. Both actors express their amazement at the sets De Laurentiis built for the show.
A second docu called German Expressionism is actually one discourse, several minutes long. It's a hopeless muddle of convoluted talk that Gervais could have boiled down to a simple sentence: Bergman's film uses a theory from German Expressionist film culture to create a new statement about fascism, social collapse and technological terror.
A relaxed and friendly David Carradine provides an informative commentary. He treats the experience as if he were an explorer returned from a strange land with a story he barely expects people to believe. I wasn't expecting such insights from this year's Kill Bill, and the track makes me want to revisit older Carradine performances, like his interesting cop in the oddball monster movie Q The Winged Serpent.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Serpent's Egg rates:
1. Lohmann is the name
given an ace detective in Fritz Lang's post-expressionistic thrillers "M" and The
Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Both are played by portly actor Otto Wernicke. In Lang's last film,
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse,
Gert Fröbe plays a similar police hero Kriminalkommisar Kraus. Here in The Serpent's Egg,
it's Fröbe's Inspector Bauer refers to a colleague, detective Lohmann, who "had a tough case
of his own."
2. Dr. Vergerus' secret movie cameras also have good synch sound, so
I guess this is a good science fiction film ... audio-on-film was surely experimental in 1923. I guess
an alternate title for this film could be The Dozen Eyes of Dr. Vergerus.
3. It's sort of an abuse of the message film, imposing a modern Aesop's
Moral on an older story ... It's as if you made a film with Eisenhower warning Kennedy that he's going
to be assassinated ... Okay, but what's the point?
4. Hilarity from 'B', 2/29/04: Dear Glenn: You are the only other person
that I know of to notice Egg's implicit suggestion that Dr. Vergerus was a multi-
talented guy. In addition to his duties as a mad scientist, he also pioneered synch sound motion
picture production. Too bad Vergerus didn't put aside those insane behaviorist ideas; if he'd
simply emigrated to America (and teamed with Cosmo Brown!) he could have ruled Hollywood.
Does the docu about Egg discuss Bergman's casting of first Peter Falk, then Richard Harris,
as Abel? [And first Welles, then Huston, as the priest?] I liked your description of Fröbe's